Wednesday, July 17

UC forced to consider decency act

Tuesday, November 26, 1996


Many experts stand against law, citing subjectivity of
standardsBy Jennifer Mukai

Daily Bruin Contributor

The laws of the land are meeting the laws of science these days.
As the 21st century draws closer, communications technology
continues to evolve at a dizzying pace, with legislation scrambling
to keep up.

The Internet is the newest media species in the spotlight. As
with its predecessors of both print and electronic form, the
question of its regulation has emerged with its development. This
question is now being hotly debated among both the government and
the public at large.

In early February 1996, thousands of World Wide Web pages across
the Internet went black, with symbolic blue ribbon icons added
overnight. Their creators were protesting the Communications
Decency Act (CDA) signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The
CDA, passed as part of the larger Telecommunications Bill,
prohibits transmission to a minor of "any comment, request,
suggestion, proposal, image or other communication which is obscene
or indecent," or "patently offensive."

The American Civil Liberties Union and dozens of other free
speech advocacy groups immediately kicked up a storm. These groups
objected that the bill’s wording was too vague and broad-based,
leaving many innocent Internet denizens vulnerable to felony
charges at any time. They also questioned what defined "indecent"
and "patently offensive" material.

Richard Kroon, manager of UCLA’s Student Technology Center,
believes that this very subjectivity of definition will be the
death of the CDA in court.

He likened the situation to the old quote, "I can’t define
pornography, but I know it when I see it." That, he said, was the
crux of the whole problem.

"Decency laws are all based on community standards. Since there
are no international boundaries on the Internet, who’s to say
what’s ‘decent?’" he asked. "Should we be able to bring action
against a Web page in Denmark (based on Los Angeles

If the CDA stands, he believes that will be the case.

Kroon isn’t too worried, however.

"It’s too broad, unworkable; it wasn’t terribly well thought
out," he said. "I don’t think it will have a long-term impact." He
added that the CDA seemed like a "political hot potato," inspired
by other interests and concerns at the time it was drafted.

"It sort of smacked something by the religious right," he
commented, referring to the concern over pornography on the
Internet. For the most part, he continued, the need for censorship
has been blown out of proportion.

Professor Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA agreed. "The Internet began
in my laboratory in 1969," he stated, "and I have never ever seen a
piece of pornographic literature cross my screen; you have to reach
out and get it."

Kleinrock, widely known as a "father of the Internet,"
supervised the first transmission over the Internet’s predecessor,
the ARPANET, in October 1969.

Kleinrock acknowledged that minors might be tempted to "reach
out and get" materials from the Internet that their parents deem
unsuitable, but he felt that this was where parental control,
rather than governmental control, needs to come in.

"I don’t think that this issue of decency is something that you
can legislate, either through law, or technically," he said. "It
has to be handled at a much higher social level ­ a level of
ethics, education, parental control, et cetera."

The challenged provisions of the CDA were overturned in a
Philadelphia federal court June 12, declared by a three-judge panel
to be unconstitutional.

This landmark decision, American Civil Liberties Union vs. Reno,
was quickly followed by similar cases in other cities, all of which
corroborated the verdict that the provisions in question violated
the First Amendment, specifically the right to freedom of speech
and press. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed an appeal, and
the case is now pending for the Supreme Court. In response, a
coalition of nearly 30 groups filed an appeal Oct. 31 for a Supreme
Court summary affirmance of the Philadelphia ruling.

The Philadelphia court’s decision emphasized that, rather than
government regulation, technology is the best way to keep
undesirable material out of the reach of children. It specifically
cited several brands of software available to parents to
self-censor the Internet, as well as ratings schemes that either
exist or are under development.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, the ruling also left
intact provisions of the CDA that bar "obscene material or child
pornography" on the Internet, and prohibit "stalking" people via
computer networks. The ruling itself notes that the plaintiffs made
it clear that they did not quarrel with the statute to the extent
that it covers these areas, which were already proscribed before
the CDA’s adoption.

While the battle rages on in court, Bonnie Mika, manager of user
services at the Office of Academic Computing, says that UCLA is
committed to students’ electronic rights. Even if the CDA is
upheld, she doesn’t foresee it affecting that commitment.

"Our policy is to ensure freedom of speech. We respect the
privacy of our users, and it’s important that we do," she said.

That is not to say, Mika quickly added, that the university will
not comply with the law when necessary. As a representative on the
Electronic Communications Task Force, she is currently helping to
draft an official UC-wide policy on all electronic

"I’m sure the Telecommunications Bill will be in the forefront
of all our minds as we establish the policy," she said.

Kroon echoed these sentiments. The Student Technology Center
won’t be policing the Web anytime soon, he said, emphasizing, "We
don’t want to be an investigative body. That’s just not a business
we want to get into."

Besides the moral issue of freedom of speech, Kroon explained,
trying to actively maintain editorial control over the content
passing through UCLA’s network could make the university liable for
material that is not caught. He pointed to recent cases brought
against the Internet service providers America Online and Prodigy
as examples.

The UC system is now attempting to strike a balance between
principles of privacy and academic freedom and the sometimes
conflicting demands of law. The task hasn’t been easy, however.

The subjectivity involved in defining "indecency" in
telecommunications presents a special dilemma for a university
environment, noted Mary Stephens of the UC Office of the President
in Oakland. "One person’s indecency is another person’s research,"
she remarked with a laugh.

Stephens, staff to the Electronic Communications Policy Task
Force, went on to explain the difficulty the University of
California faces as both an educational institution and a state
agency. Academic freedom is absolutely critical to the UC schools,
she said, but at the same time they are subject to certain federal
and state laws. She stressed, however, that the University is
committed to students’ constitutional rights.

"It isn’t electronics that makes (material) ‘indecent.’ It’s the
content," she observed. "We wouldn’t want to single out electronics
from paper." She explained that, regardless of the outcome of the
CDA case, the UC system will treat disciplinary questions involving
electronic communications the same way as any other, based on
existing policy on student, staff and faculty conduct.

Both Stephens and Mika were also part of the Electronic Mail
Task Force, which in August issued an official UC-wide policy
statement on the proper usage, privileges and rights of e-mail
users. The policy sought to "strike the right balance between …
principles of privacy and academic freedom and the often
conflicting needs of law, University policy and administrative

In an attached letter, UC President Richard Atkinson ordered the
University of California Electronic Mail Policy to be implemented
systemwide by Jan. 1, 1997. In the meantime, it is effective as
"interim policy" while each campus develops its own supporting
guidelines and procedures.

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